Toledo’s “Echo Chamber”
Posted on January 5, 2018Studies in the History of Media Art: Screen Culture
People around the city, staring at a handheld screen. Some are sitting at a café, some are in the subway. Some others are walking in the streets or in parks. There are even some that are so absorbed that they bump onto others, or walk right in front of a moving car. No, these are not events that are currently happening, they are scenes of La télévision, oeil de demain,1 a 1947 documentary by French director J.K. Raymond-Millet. During those scenes, the narrator explains that devices of tomorrow will allow us to easily access the content we prefer: information, entertainment, and everything in between. Many of these predictions are eerily similar to the state of our current society.
How is it that people are so riveted to those screens? Part of the answer lies in the fact that people are given access to content of their choice. However, catering to consumer preferences is nothing new, even in news broadcasts and publications. In The Press—a chapter of Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man—Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan argued that the newspaper layout was modified over time so that advertisements could be placed alongside most interesting news items, thus capitalizing on the consumers’ attention.2
With that in mind, it is not too far-fetched to state that reorganizing news items could manipulate opinions, or at the least affect them. McLuhan mentions a secondary school teacher who discussed such matter with his students, and who was met with total disbelief when he suggested that “the press or any other public means of communication could be used with base intent.”3 Although today the press is more often accused of doing just that, it seems like the same disbelief is now applied to social networks. Newspapers and magazine layouts were chosen by editors—actual people—but social networks news feeds are ordered by an algorithm—a computational function. Research show4 that many users of such services actually believe they have full control over how the news items are presented to them, and some even doubt that there could be any sort of intent from the social networks themselves, or that algorithms could determine what they read.
As McLuhan said, “Failure in perception [of the medium] occurs precisely in giving attention to the program ‘content’ of our media, while ignoring the form […].”5 The medium may have changed—from newspapers to social networks news feeds—but the effect on behaviours has not. By obtaining news only from a one source, people reduce their possibility of learning from other points of view, and thus reinforce their current beliefs. That effect is known as an “echo chamber,” an analogy of a room in which sound reverberates due to its configuration. Social media news feeds tend to cause this situation much more rapidly and efficiently, as their algorithms analyze user choices and preferences, and then cater to them by adding more of the same type of content to the news items queue.
This system, its effects on us as people and as a society, lead Mexican artist Luis Toledo to create an interactive installation with the appropriate name Echo Chamber. Set in the context of a white cube gallery, Luis Toledo’s artwork projects on a wall a blue and white interface that is similar to the ubiquitous Facebook social network. A few metres in front of the projection stands a sensor. Visitors are invited to assess news items by enacting a thumbs-up or thumbs-down gesture over the sensor. Toledo’s piece then saves the visitors’ choices by committing keywords associated with the news item and its grade to a database. The news feed projected on the wall is adapted to reflect the audience’s judgment and preferences, guided by the updated database content.
The piece was presented during the Ars Electronica Festival, in an exhibition named Made in Linz, in which students in the Interface Cultures Master’s degree programme of the Kunstuniversität Linz, in Austria, were given an opportunity to showcase works and works in progress in the various fields that gravitate around media and interactive art. Interestingly, the exhibition’s blurb itself questions the “made in” label.6 Linz has been given the title of “UNESCO city of Media Art,” which could indicate an audience knowledgeable of media and interactive artworks, and potentially inclined to accept such artworks as critiques of the information society. In Aesthetics of Interaction in Digital Art, Katja Kwastek—a professor of Modern and Contemporary Art—builds theoretical and methodological tools to analyze media and interactive artworks. By opposing different philosophies, Kwastek states that “the necessary condition for aesthetic experience is an appropriate disposition on the part of the recipient.”7 From there, she goes in depth into different aspects of aesthetic and reception. The exhibition context and the audience knowledge qualify as an appropriate disposition.
Kwastek also argues that media art criticizes and influences the information society in which we currently live.8 In The Work of Art in the Age of Virtual Republishing and Network Installation, Mark Amerika—an artist, theorist, and Professor of Art and Art History—believes that “building alternative sites that actively resist the temptation to become absorbed in the cultural mainstream” is the best way to respond to society’s and corporations’ systems.9 Additionally, Jer Thorp— a writer, educator, and artist who works with Big Data—seems to concur with Kwastek and Amerika. In Turning Data Around, he illustrates how virtual data systems affect real-life people, and calls for designers to create new systems which should be more transparent in how they make use of data, which is in fact people’s personal information.10 Toledo’s Echo Chamber is doing just that: the artwork responds to a mainstream system—a social network, namely Facebook—by exposing its internal workings, by reducing the complexity of one of its algorithms to the degree of obviousness. The artist highlights what is meant to be invisible to the regular social media user: the catering of news items to the point of generating an echo chamber.
© Image by Share Lab
There is, however, one point which Toledo’s piece does not address explicitly: how does Facebook create the pool of information from which its algorithm picks news items? As Thorp’s essay exposes, Big Data—the resource which algorithms require—is personal information, and it must be harvested from somewhere. In spring 2017, BBC News published Joe Miller’s How Facebook’s tentacles reach further than you think, an article which presents the research of Vladan Joler—a new media professor at the Academy of Arts of the University of Novi Sad, Serbia. Joler attempted to figure out how Facebook collects information via its multiple platforms—Facebook, Instagram, and Whatsapp—and how the corporation determines “ethnic affinity (Facebook’s term), sexual orientation, political affiliation, social class, travel schedule and much more.”11 With such detailed profiles, the social network is able to target its users with news items that would be much more relevant to their preferences. Miller quotes Dr. Julia Powles, an expert in technology law and policy at Cornell Tech:
What is most striking is the sense of resignation, the impotence of regulation, the lack of options, the public apathy [.] What an extraordinary situation for an entity that has power over information—there is no greater power really.12
At this point, it’s almost too easy to draw a parallel with addiction, where the term “users” is also appropriate, and where the drug dealer ensures that he has power over users by providing them with exactly what they need. While it’s possible to say that Facebook is merely supplying the need for a market, it’s important not to forget that with all the information they gathered, they might be creating their own market demand—addicts with a dependency—and supplying their own products, news items, and advertisements—or drug.
But as Miller’s article shows, this accumulation of personal information by invasion of privacy, or by obfuscation of means of collection, is a complicated matter, at least as complicated as the concept of the echo chamber. In Network Installations, Creative Exhibitionism, and Virtual Republishing: An Attempt at Contextualizing the Ongoing Ungoing Story of Being in Cyberspace, Amerika questions the exhibition model of galleries for showcasing lengthy or complex digital artworks. He illustrates that it would be inconceivable to spread a 300-page novel in a gallery and expect the audience to have the patience to go through it all, sitting or standing.13 Kwastek would probably agree, as one of her points is that for a media artwork to be efficient, the interaction must be made obvious to the audience.14
Had Toledo chosen to add the complex subject of privacy and data collection to his piece, his point probably would have been lost on his audience. As a corollary, Ai Weiwei’s Hansel & Gretel,15 which was created with architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, tackles the very subject of privacy, but did not touch upon the subject of the echo chamber. With his installation, Luis Toledo chose an aspect, and he chose to refine its presentation so that his questioning would come across clearly.
1 “La Télévision, oeil de demain (1947) – J.K Raymond Millet [Extrait],” YouTube video, 4:03, excerpt from a 1947 documentary, posted by “Les Documents Cinematographiques,” September 22, 2017, https://youtu.be/ZKfOcR7Qbu4.
2 Marshall McLuhan, “The Press,” in Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, 3rd ed. (Toronto, ON: The New American Library, 1968), 182-93.
3 Marshall McLuhan, “The Press,” in Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, 3rd ed. (Toronto, ON: The New American Library, 1968), 187.
4 Pete Brown, “Study: Readers are hungry for news feed transparency,” Columbia Journalism Review, October 24, 2017, https://www.cjr.org/tow_center/study-readers-hungry-news-feed-transparency-algorithms.php.
5 Marshall McLuhan, “The Press,” in Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, 3rd ed. (Toronto, ON: The New American Library, 1968), 187.
6 Christa Sommerer et al, “MADE IN LINZ – Interface Cultures,” Interface Cultures – Master Program, http://interface.ufg.ac.at/blog/made-in-linz/.
7 Katja Kwastek, Aesthetics of Interaction in Digital Art (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2013), 49.
8 Katja Kwastek, Aesthetics of Interaction in Digital Art (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2013), 41.
9 Mark Amerika, “The Work of Art in the Age of Virtual Republishing and Network Installation,” in Meta/Data, A Digital Poetics (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2007), 318-19.
10 Jer Thorp, “Turning Data Around,” The Office for Creative Research Journal 002 (2016): 11-24.
11 Joe Miller, “How Facebook’s tentacles reach further than you think,” BBC News, May 27, 2017, http://www.bbc.com/news/business-39947942.
13 Mark Amerika, “Network Installations, Creative Exhibitionism, and Virtual Republishing: An Attempt at Contextualizing the Ongoing Ungoing Story of Being in Cyberspace,” in Meta/Data, A Digital Poetics (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2007), 320-23.
14 Katja Kwastek, Aesthetics of Interaction in Digital Art (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2013), 20.
15 Diana Budds, “At Ai Weiwei’s Unnerving New Installation, The Art Spies On You,” Co.Design, June 8, 2017, https://www.fastcodesign.com/90128622/at-ai-weiweis-unnerving-new-installation-the-art-spies-on-you.
Agence France-Presse, “Facebook devant la justice française jeudi pour avoir censuré L’origine du monde,” Radio-Canada, January 30, 2018, http://ici.radio-canada.ca/nouvelle/1081270/facebook-justice-francaise-censure-tableau.
Commission de l’éthique en science et en technologie, “ÉTHIQUE HEBDO du 9 février – Comme une machine de vidéo-poker dans nos poches,” Radio-Canada, Februart 9, 2018, http://www.ethique.gouv.qc.ca/fr/ethique-hebdo/eh-09-fevrier-2018.html.
Justin Dupuis, “You’re addicted to socializing, not your smartphone,” World Economic Forum, February 8, 2018, https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2018/02/we-re-addicted-to-socializing-not-our-smartphones.
Dan Goodin, “No, you’re not being paranoid. Sites really are watching your every move,” Ars Technica (blog), November 20, 2017, https://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2017/11/an-alarming-number-of-sites-employ-privacy-invading-session-replay-scripts/.
Vanessa Graf, “Interface Cultures’ Campus Exhibition: Made in Linz, Guaranteed,” Ars Electronica Blog (blog), July 24, 2017, https://www.aec.at/aeblog/en/2017/07/24/made-inlinz-campus-exhibition/.
Sarah Jeong, “Turning the specter of internet surveillance into art,” The Verge (blog), November 9, 2017, https://www.theverge.com/2017/11/9/16620452/london-glass-room-art-exhibit.
Vladan Joler, Andrej Petrovski, Kristian Lukic, and Jan Krasni, “Facebook Algorithmic Factory (1): Immaterial Labour and Data Harvesting”, Share Lab, August 21, 2016, https://labs.rs/en/facebook-algorithmic-factory-immaterial-labour-and-data-harvesting/.
Vladan Joler, Andrej Petrovski, Kristian Lukic, and Jan Krasni, “Facebook Algorithmic Factory (2): Human Data Banks and Algorithmic Labour”, Share Lab, August 20, 2016, https://labs.rs/en/facebook-algorithmic-factory-human-data-banks-and-algorithmic-labour/.
Vladan Joler, Andrej Petrovski, Kristian Lukic, and Jan Krasni, “Facebook Algorithmic Factory (3): Quantified Lives on Discount”, Share Lab, August 19, 2016, https://labs.rs/en/facebook-algorithmic-factory-immaterial-labour-and-data-harvesting/.
Rachel Kaser, “Facebook says ‘passively consuming’ the News Feed will make you feel worse about yourself,” The Verge (blog), December 15, 2017, https://www.theverge.com/2017/12/15/16781448/facebook-makes-you-feel-bad-study-research.
Jan Krasni, Vladan Joler, and Christo and Andrej Petrovski, “The Human Fabric of the Facebook Pyramid”, Share Lab, May 3, 2017, https://labs.rs/en/the-human-fabric-of-the-facebook-pyramid/.
Hanna Kozlowska, “Facebook’s founding president admitted how it exploits human psychology,” Quartz, November 10, 2017, https://qz.com/1126271/facebooks-founding-president-sean-parker-admitted-how-it-exploits-human-psychology/.
Om Malik, “The #1 reason Facebook won’t ever change,” OM (blog), February 20, 2018, https://om.co/2018/02/20/the-1-reason-facebook-wont-ever-change/.
Casey Newton, “Facebook digs a deeper hole in response to former exec,” TNW (blog), December 13, 2017, https://www.theverge.com/2017/12/15/16781448/facebook-makes-you-feel-bad-study-research.
David Robert Grimes, “Echo chambers are dangerous – we must try to break free of our online bubbles?,” The Guardian, December 4, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/science/blog/2017/dec/04/echo-chambers-are-dangerous-we-must-try-to-break-free-of-our-online-bubbles.
Mark Rolston, “Dark Interactions Are Invading Our Lives. Where’s The Off Button?,” Co.Design, November 17, 2017, https://www.fastcodesign.com/90151350/dark-interactions-are-invading-our-lives-wheres-the-off-button.
Jer Thorp, “Tech and the fine art of complicity,” Knight Foundation, February 21, 2018, https://www.knightfoundation.org/articles/tech-and-the-fine-art-of-complicity.
Luis Toledo, “Q&A with Luis Toledo,” interview by Mat Janson Blanchet, Mat Janson Blanchet’s academic works in progress (blog), November 21, 2017, https://academia.jansensan.net/arth-358/q-and-a-with-luis-toledo/.
Alexandre Vigneault. “Les ados minés par le cellulaire ?” La Presse, February 25, 2018. http://www.lapresse.ca/vivre/societe/201802/22/01-5154897-les-ados-mines-par-le-cellulaire-.php.
Nick Zarzycki, “Why would we trust Facebook to safeguard our democracies?,” Macleans, December 4, 2017, http://www.macleans.ca/opinion/why-would-we-trust-facebook-to-safeguard-our-democracies/.
“Are we safe in a future with AI?,” YouTube video, 6:07, posted by “The National,” December 4, 2017, https://youtu.be/18ki9GPhbQY.
“Ars Electronica Festival 2017 | „Made in Linz“: Campus Exhibition Interface Cultures,” online video, 41:02, posted by “dorf tv,” September 5, 2017, https://dorftv.at/video/27856.
“LINZ – UNESCO City of Media Arts.” LINZ – UNESCO City of Media Arts. http://www.cityofmediaarts.at/
As a mid-term assignment for the Studies in the History of Media Art: Screen Culture class, we were tasked to research an artwork that could be related a contemporary news item. Luis Toledo’s piece, Echo Chamber, which Christa Sommerer presented during her keynote for the Leonardo 50th Anniversary Celebration at Concordia University, was perfect.
While I was preparing my proposal and gathering my sources, I thought that since the artist is my contemporary, I could try to get in touch with him and ask him a few questions directly. With the help of Mr. dal Farra and Ms. Sommerer, I was able to get in touch with Mr. Toledo. He gracefully accepted to respond to my many questions by email, which you can read in the Q&A with Luis Toledo published earlier this semester.